06 July 2013

Arts and Crafts Vs Vienna Secession - chairs

In 1861, William Morris founded Morris & Co. to make all the interior decorative elements that would be needed in a comfortable home - furniture, textiles, wallpaper and decorative glass. The company’s philosophy was that all goods had to be hand made and of top quality, and that there needed to be a return to individual workers completing all stages of production. No depersonalised conveyor belt process for Morris' craftsmen!

The business manager of William Morris and Co, Warrington Taylor, was apparently visiting furniture showrooms in rural Sussex one year and came across a reclining chair that he had never seen before. He jotted down the details of the design on the back of a used envelope and sent it along to the firm’s chief designer, architect Phillip Webb. Webb had no trouble in making a reclining chair suitable for sales to the Company's sophisticated client base, rebranding it as the Morris chair.

The first sketch of the adjustable chair can be confidently dated back to 1866. From then on, the upholstered and adjustable chair was manufactured and popularised by William Morris and Co. In early Morris chairs, the cushions were sewn into the chair seat and upholstered in wool tapestry, the patterns often designed by Morris himself.

Adjustable chair, designed by Philip Webb and made by Morris and Co, 1869.

Within a relatively short time, the Morris chair was being designed with slightly different tastes, both in Britain and abroad. As long as the chairs were manufactured with arm rests and an adjustable back, I will define them as Morris chairs. But there was a difference - British Morris chairs always used fabric cushions behind the back and under the bottom; other countries might have preferred leather or other materials.

Recently at the National Gallery of Victoria I saw a chair designed by Josef Hoffmann (1870-1956). He was a star of the Vienna Secession and the superstar of the Vienna Workshops, which started in 1897 and 1903 respectively.

Hoffmann was responsible for a number of slightly different sitzmaschines between 1905-8. The example below was crafted by the Jacob & Josef Kohn furniture company  from a beech bentwood that had been stained a deeper colour. The hinged and adjustable back made the chair very useful for clients in leisure resorts and health-based institutions like Purkersdorf Sanitorium on the edge of Vienna. The chair to allow patients to rest, while absorbing the fresh air and sunshine.

Sitzmaschine, designed by Josef Hoffman and made by J and J Kohn, 1908.

Who valued handmade craftsmanship any longer? Machine technology opened up endless possibilities; Hoffmann wanted Viennese craftsmen to use machinery to make identical chair parts cheaply, fast and with a lovely finish. In the end we can say that while Hoffmann used the principles of the Morris chair, his designs and manufacturing techniques were from a totally different country and in a totally different era.

Compare the results of Josef Hoffmann with that of Philip Webb. Firstly the Viennese chair was called a machine-for-sitting, a very clear acknowledgement of the mechanical aspects of modernity. Secondly the forms became very starkly geometric and simplified, presumably suited to machine production. Every element that would have taken weeks by hand back in 1870 ...could be done by machine in hours eg the rectangular back splat and the bentwood loops that formed the armrests and legs. Thirdly exposed, handmade joinery that was found in much British Arts and Crafts furniture was replaced by the small "spheres" that Hoffmann used to reinforce critical joints.

Hoffmann understood that with good design work, standardised machine-made parts could also double as decorative shapes. In fact the decorative and functional components of the chair were smoothly blended together. Rectangular windows on the side and back panels held the chair together, but they also added a decorative element that was redolent of industrial modernity. The rows of knobs on the back of the frame enabled the client to move the position of a rod between the knobs, allowing the back to be raised and lowered.

By the way, the NGV’s examples and all photos of the sitzmaschines that I have seen show the Viennese furniture without cushions. Yet MoMA stated that when J & J Kohn produced and sold these chairs, most of them had cushions on the seat and back. If anyone has a photo of a Viennese adjustable chair with cushions, I would love a reference.

However of one thing I am certain. Upholstered cushions were always sewn into the arms of the original Morris chair; in Hoffmann’s chairs, the arms were always left perfectly plain.


Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I remember the clunky, redwood versions of the Morris chair that were used outdoors and on porches. The cushions were always detachable.

In an article on the Morris dance, humorist Robert Benchley detours to comment on the Morris chair, recalling how comfortable they were, yet hard to arise from, and speculating that many missing persons might be found stuck in Morris chairs.
--Road to Parnassus

We Travel said...

The best spot to see Vienna Secession furniture is in the Leopold Museum in Vienna. Cool paintings but also one entire floor has been set aside for furniture amd the decorative arts.

Hels said...


There is something to that.. Hoffmann really did have the leisure sites and health based facilites in mind. So although Hoffmann's chair looks less attractive, the design was more successful than the Morris chair.

Hels said...

We Travel,

Yes indeed. Other galleries may have a couple of paintings, and one piece of furniture, but The Leopold Museum documents the entire history of art and design in Vienna. From art nouveau to expressionism. Bliss.

John hopper said...

Although each chair has its individual merit, it does come down, as you say, to a fundamental difference over approach to mass production. I think that we should always have been looking at singular longevity, rather than the appeal of mass production without thinking of the consequences. Sustainability might well be an overused tag at the moment, but it should always have been an integral point when looking at furniture design. Perhaps if we had taken more consideration as to production techniques we wouldn't be in quite the mess we now find ourselves in. Anyway, at the end of the day Morris produced a comfy chair and Hoffmann produced a machine for sitting in.

Hels said...


I am not sure that I should have been making direct comparisons since Morris and Co started in 1861 and Vienna Secession and the Vienna Workshops, started in 1897 and 1903 respectively. Even though the Viennese cited Arts and Crafts as their mentors, the world changed a great deal in 40 years.

Yes indeed.. we should always have been looking at sustainability, rather than the slick appeal of mass production. But I wish you luck with that :)